Belfast Telegraph

Hydebank giving young offenders the chance to go straight ... up the ladder of success

Young offenders in the province have been given the opportunity to become entrepreneurs thanks to a new training course at Hydebank detention centre

By Anne Madden

Summer is the season for graduation celebrations but there were no strawberries and cream or photographs with proud parents following these exam results.

In fact parents weren’t permitted, for these graduates were all young offenders “doing time” at Hydebank in south Belfast.

Eleven young men, aged between 18 and 22, received a qualification in how to start up their own business — the first time this type of initiative has been offered in a Young Offenders Centre in Northern Ireland.

They each qualified with a VRQ (vocationally related qualifications) Level 2, after completing the Exploring Enterprise Programme.

Hydebank approached North City Business Centre, the local Enterprise Agency for north Belfast, about delivering the programme, normally offered to the unemployed in the community.

Education is an important part of the rehabilitation of offenders at Hydebank and some leave with GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications.

But this is the first time offenders have been given the skills and know-how to set up their own business.

It makes sense to provide them with this opportunity, given the grim statistics:

According to the Home Office, lack of education, training and employment is the single greatest factor behind offending.

Offenders released from prison without a job are twice as likely to reoffend as those released with employment already lined up.

And yet, employers reject candidates with a criminal record for about one half of vacancies, while those with more serious convictions are rejected for about 90% of jobs. With such dim prospects, an entrepreneurial spirit seems almost essential for an offender returning to the community.

Three of the graduates the Belfast Telegraph spoke to were very motivated young men.

Their first objective, naturally, was to be released from the barbed wire and high walls of Hydebank, but their hopes for the future revolved around establishing their own businesses.

Niall from Co Down has been on remand for a year for an arson attack. The 20-year-old acknowledged that Hydebank had helped him “look back and focus” on what was wrong in his life.

“I’ve always had ideas for my own business — I was cutting sticks and selling them since I was in primary school,” he said.

“I used to valet cars in my driveway and buy old scrap cars, so much that I always had my mum complaining about cars in the drive.”

Cars are Niall’s main interest: “I’ve been working with cars since I was about 10.

“I want to start up my own garage, working with agricultural vehicles, tractors and MOT cars to sell on.

“At the garage I used to work at, there would be days we’d work from seven in the morning until late at night, but I enjoyed it.”

He describes the garage owner as his inspiration — a 25-year-old self-made man who is married and owns his house outright.

“I’d be happy if I had half of what he’s got,” Niall said.

His fellow inmate was a trainee mechanic before he was locked up for driving offences.

Chris, also from Co Down, has since turned his back on cars. Instead he has become a fitness fanatic and qualified as a gym instructor. The quietly-spoken 20-year-old said Hydebank had changed his perspective on life.

“Before I came here, my whole outlook was on enjoyment and living for today,” he said.

“Now I want to get set up, settle down and have a family — you have to mature and grow up very fast in here. The hardest thing is being away from your family.”

Certainly, physically Chris has changed dramatically. He was 14-stone when he arrived at Hydebank two years ago and has trimmed down to a slim 10-and-a-half stone.

“I was always fat at school,” he said. “Now I’m interested in health and fitness magazines. Because you have nothing in here, it is a great way to develop self-discipline.

“I was always thinking of being a personal fitness trainer. The course has definitely given me confidence to build on my ideas and the knowledge to set up my own business.”

Co Tyrone man Daniel, who was released last month following an eight-month sentence for assault said he wanted to set up his own plumbing business and intends to continue his business venture with support from North City Business Centre.

“I always had it in my head to work for myself but the Exploring Enterprise course helped by giving me advice on how to deal with money,” he said.

“I can’t wait to work for myself.”

Daniel has also benefited from anger management and substance abuse programmes whilst in Hydebank.

“It’s helped to get my life on the straight and narrow,” he confessed. “Now I’m more motivated. You see what an eejit you made of yourself. It’s like anything, you show respect, you get respected.” However, Daniel expressed frustration with fellow inmates who reoffend as soon as they are released. “You see these guys back again — some of them don’t care, there is nothing that motivates them.”

Course tutor Paul Mellon agrees that motivation is key to the programme’s success.

“The guys saw this as a good opportunity and their commitment was first class,” he said.

“There was a pre-assessment programme to see if they were suitable, if they were interested in business, and we looked at

their record to see if it was appropriate for them.”

The project is part-financed by the European Social Fund, the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), Enterprise Northern Ireland and the Local Enterprise Agencies under the Northern Ireland ESF Programme 2007-13.

However Alice Quinn, director of North City Business Centre, said: “We have received such |positive feedback that we would like to offer the programme again in the future.”

As for the young graduates, when they are released they will be directed to their local enterprise agency which will support them on their first tentative steps.

Belfast Telegraph